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Randy Bell

Director, Global Energy Center

The Atlantic Council

March 10, 2021
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Ep 3: Randy Bell - Director, Global Energy Center, The Atlantic Council
00:00 / 01:04

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
We are here today with Randy Bell, the Director of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council, and the Richard Morningstar Chair for Global Energy Security. Randy, welcome to the Energy Impact Podcast.

Randy Bell
Michelle, thank you so much. It's fantastic to be here. Always a pleasure to see you virtually.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Great to see you too. So we'll jump into all the great work that the Atlantic Council and the Global Energy Center are doing in just a bit. But first, I'd like to have our audience get to know you a bit more. And so how did you come to be a thought leader in the energy policy space and energy security in the first place?

Randy Bell
Well, I'll dispute that characterization of me as having thoughts or being a leader. But how did I get into this role? It is a circuitous story. I have no formal background in energy policy. I actually studied documentary filmmaking in college and made documentaries internationally for 10 years or so and got interested in the policy side of the things that I was filming. So I went back to graduate school to study foreign policy and international affairs. And initially, when I came to Washington, I was working for a couple of different organizations working on cybersecurity and I did work on the Pakistani military for counterterrorism, counterterrorism issues, did a bunch of work on counterterrorism issues in East Africa. So I sort of had this general geopolitical bent. And then when I came to the Atlantic Council, I was initially sort of a generalist and helping run the corporate program and Ambassador Morningstar, when he came to the council to start the Global Energy Center, he ultimately recruited me to come to the Energy Center as well. And I got up to speed in one way shape or form on energy issues over a number of years. And, you know, part of that was through running the Global Energy Forum, which we usually hold in Abu Dhabi. And part of that was just through the day to day work of being at the Energy Center. And, and so that's sort of where, you know, I learned more about energy every day, but I would never consider myself, you know, a thought leader in any way, shape or form simply just because I never really studied it, I come at it from a whole different angle.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
That's fascinating. It's actually quite similar to myself and how I got into energy policy as well. I'm curious, you said that you got interested in policy through your filmmaking. A lot of folks will say that's catching the policy bug, or at least that's the catchy phrase that I like to use. What specific policy areas were you first attracted to and really interested in? Sounds like you seem to touch a lot on national security issues.

Randy Bell
Yeah, you know, the documentaries that I was working on were primarily focused on international development issues. So I'm spending a lot of time in East Africa, looking at poverty. Looking at the HIV AIDS crisis, the social impacts of HIV AIDS. I did a lot of work in Kenya. I also did some work in Vietnam, and in other parts of Asia, and so sort of looking at developing countries and the issues, the things that were surrounding that, but through that is starting to get to know some of the security issues that we're developing, particularly in the the 2000s with counterterrorism issues. And I spent a lot of time again, in Kenya, and Ethiopia, thinking about those. And so that really is what drew me back to study more. So it was, it was that set of issues. And tying the counterterrorism piece to the poverty and development piece, which drew me in. So it's, uh, you know, what do you think about energy, though, and tying energy to this, you know, the Atlantic Council, we don't do enough on this issue, but we really know we need to do more about energy access. So that really come full circle back to the development piece, and how do you ensure that the millions of people worldwide who don't have access to reliable energy, get access to reliable energy, and when you can solve that type of problem, you can help solve a number of other development problems as well,

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
That's a really great point and something that we as an organization, the Energy Impact Center, think about quite a lot. Energy really is kind of a key enabler for so many of the best parts of society. And, just being able to participate in your economy, having opportunity and energy really is at the crux of all of that. And so the more that we can increase access to energy, and that energy be clean, and affordable and something that is democratic, is a really great mission to have. I think there's a lot of alignment there. So let's, let's jump into the Atlantic Council, and the Global Energy Center, it sounds like you were there from the very start. So this is really great. I'd love to have you kind of frame for us how the Global Energy Center fits within the Atlantic Council's broader mission and how the Global Energy Center really seeks to to, to, to act on that mission and what its mission is.

Randy Bell
Yeah, so the Atlantic Council had done work on energy for any for many, many years. And it actually had an Energy and Environment Program for a while. That was just wrapping down when I came to the Atlantic Council. It had a DOE grant. It was pretty technical, the work that they were doing, it was a lot of work on carbon capture, from a very technical perspective. And it was in the very early days of carbon capture. And that was interesting work. But it really didn't tie in with the rest of work that the Atlantic Council was doing on energy, which sort of permeated a lot of the various conversations that the different programs in the council were having, whether it was the work on Europe and European energy security, tied to pipeline politics, or the work in the Middle East, which, which, of course deals with, at least initially, a lot of questions about the Straits of Hormuz and the geopolitical issues surrounding oil production, and an oil security. And more and more, the council is starting to do work on climate and how climate change both impacts geopolitics, but how countries were making choices about their energy system and how that would change the geopolitical system. Right when I came to the Atlantic Council, and they were really rethinking how we would, how we would do energy at the Atlantic Council, and they they brought on Ambassador Morningstar, six or eight months after I showed up at the Council, I was still in my previous job, and he really got the center going. And his background, and his expertise is European energy security. And so the work that they focused on initially, was primarily there on those topics. And the council had also for many years run a conference in Istanbul called the Istanbul Summit, which focused on the greater Black Sea region and its energy and economic security. So we had this body of expertise and experience working in Europe and Eurasia on energy issues and that really started moving forward in a much more concerted sort of thought out way once Ambassador Morningstar started. And over the next year or two, we started doing more on broader energy or geopolitics. And Ambassador Morningstar really thought that, obviously, the time was it was crucial to bring in climate and environmental issues into this conversation, the energy security was becoming much more than just a conversation about access to energy really was about access to clean energy. And that was becoming just as much an important part of the conversation as what we've been talking about about even cutting off gas pipelines to Ukraine. So his leadership really helped shape our trajectory. And so we've really grown since then to have both a much broader geographic focus. So we still have our core work in Europe, which is really, really strong. But we also have a lot more work in the United States right now, on policy development in the United States for energy security, for clean energy, we've done a huge amount of work on nuclear energy, the United States looking at nuclear energy as a national and and climate security imperative. We're doing a lot of work on hydrogen policy in the United States right now, where we see hydrogen as an opportunity to potentially sort of bridge the divide between pieces of the hydrocarbon sector and the renewable energy sector, you sort of need both sets of expertise to make that happen. And the US is really well positioned to launch a hydrogen economy, we have the most pipeline in the world, we produce more hydrogen than anywhere else in the world. But we probably have the worst policy on hydrogen of any of the major economies that are thinking about hydrogen. So we're really set up to have a great hydrogen economy, but we don't have the right policy framework to make that happen. So we're doing a lot of work there. But then we've also expanded geographically beyond the US and Europe to doing a lot of work in the Middle East, a lot of work in Latin America, and we have a great Latin America program at the Atlantic Council that we partner with pretty regularly on that. And then we're building out more work in East Asia as well. And we're looking to do more work in Africa. That's, you know, where I, of course, spent lots of time, a decade plus ago, and we'd love to do more, we just don't have that. We've got bits and pieces, but we don't have a full body of work there yet. It's trying to figure out where we can actually add value.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, so really a global perspective. And one that seems to focus very much on the energy transitions, it sounds like when the Global Energy Council was formed, it not only was the Atlantic Council kind of in transition and trying to better better marry climate, or environmental issues with energy policy leadership, right. And so that kind of seems to be the crux of where the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center is focusing is how can we kind of help and enable and lead and provide a forum for people to come together and think about energy as an issue that touches many other policy aspects, deep security, or environmental issues as well. That's, that's really great. I'd love to dive into a lot of these specific topics that you brought up. And maybe a good way to frame that would be the most recent globally focused event that the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center just hosted two weeks ago, I think, now, I don't know if you've been able to sleep it off. I knew it was quite a marathon. But that's the Global Energy Forum, which really is kind of this world stage for a discussion on global, you know, geopolitical energy issues. And, as you mentioned, this is typically in Abu Dhabi. And obviously, this is 2021. Now, the pandemic made that not possible, so it was virtual. I’d love it if you could kind of give an introduction to the event. I know it's now in its fifth year. And let us and can tell us, what's the goal of the Forum and who's in attendance?

Randy Bell
Yep. So, again, yeah, this is the fifth year we held the first global energy forum in January 2017. We pick January because the UAE holds our Abu Dhabi sustainability week every January. It's usually the second or third week of January. And that brings a global group of stakeholders together to talk about sustainability issues. The UAE is really fascinating as a global energy hub, because of course it is a global leader in hydrocarbon production. They produce something like three and a half to 4 million barrels a day of oil at least. I can't remember what they're doing right now under their OPEC quotas, but you know, they can produce a lot of oil. They have natural gas, but they also have been a leader in clean energy technology, with Masdar as an early leader in renewables, and they, Masdar and a couple other Middle Eastern companies, continue to compete for the lowest cost renewables in the world. And they keep outdoing each other. But it's a really remarkable thing to see. I mean, of course, in the Middle East, you have great solar resources. And so you really can think about, you know, how you leverage those solar resources. But in addition, the UAE also embarked on a really ambitious project to bring nuclear energy to the country.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, this is a great story. I'd love if you could actually take it take a second and yeah,

Randy Bell
So they opened the first reactor at Barakah a four reactor, ultimately will be a four reactor facility, they opened that last year, it's online, it’s generating power and feeding into the grid which is remarkable. So they're really working to lower the emissions profile of their power sector which has pretty high emissions. But with the combination of nuclear, renewables and natural gas, they really will be able to bring their emissions down in their power sector. They also are looking at the globe, the GCC interconnection authority, which connects the power sector, the power sectors of all of the GCC countries, and they can actually, that can, the Barakah plant, when it's fully online will probably help bring all the GCC countries emissions profile down. There are also opportunities if the geopolitics all work out to potentially sell power into Europe during the winter, where GCC just has less power demand because so much of the power demand is tied to air conditioning. And in January, in Abu Dhabi I wish I would have been there. It is beautiful. Yeah, 65 degrees at night, 75 degrees during the day, it's perfect. But they have all this, this still have a lot of sun, they still have all this capacity that they can sell to places where they really need more power and low carbon power as well. So there's Barakah plants that have been a decade plus in the making, and uses the Korean APR 1400 design, which is based on a Westinghouse design. So there's Westinghouse as part of this as well. And it's a really fantastic example of really showing leadership from the UAE and developing nuclear power efficiently. I mean, they're a couple of years behind schedule. But that's, that's nothing in the end.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And it's not just developing the plants themselves, but it's also standing up an entire program for nuclear energy. I believe and correct me if I'm wrong, but when you said about a decade that they've been working on it, it's about a decade that they've had the plan in place, right. And so you know, putting together a competent regulatory authority and all of the agency's unwritten rules and going through all of the hoops that are required to stand up a nuclear power program and to do it also, with, you know, international cooperation. You mentioned the Koreans, I know, there's been a lot of participation in other countries helping with the project as well, it's really been quite like a shining star of an example of how, you know, a country can set their ambition to have nuclear energy, and to to see that that vision, you know, become reality and in a decade or slightly over. So it's, it's really great story.

Randy Bell
Yeah. And Ellen Tauscher, who unfortunately died last year, she always talked about how she had started working on the UAE 123 Agreement while she was in Congress. And then when she went to the Obama administration, to the State Department, she was able to finalize it. So that 123 Agreement was finalized in 2009. And, and so the real formal cooperation between the US and UAE really began in 2009. So the project had been started a little, you know, a few years earlier, they started doing all that work, but it really couldn't get off the ground until that 123 Agreement was in place. So it's really remarkable what has happened, and that they were able to get a new nuclear power plant online during a pandemic, the testing protocols were remarkable to make sure that everybody, you know, everybody was safe on the plant that they could make this all work. So a really important lesson for the global community. But how you can actually get this done. And, and really have strong non proliferation standards really have made this part of a concerted energy and climate policy. It's a story that I think we need to pay more attention to, as it continues to go forward. I've visited the plant twice now. It's just very, it's just so cool to see first of all, but

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And you get to see it as it's being constructed as you go back to the Global Energy Forum.

Randy Bell
Yeah, that's exactly right. The first time I visited I went into reactor one, and the second time I visited reactor one wasn't online yet, but they couldn't, they weren't allowing visitors. So I went into the second reactor and that one's pretty close. And they're obviously, there's an interesting lesson for nuclear here, which is you get better as you do it more often. And so they might have been a little bit behind on the first and so much of that, frankly, was tied to making sure that they had the human human capital in place. Not so much the construction, but the construction, they keep getting better. And they keep getting as they build number 1, 2, 3, and 4, so they will see all those come online relatively quickly. It's really, really quite remarkable. But back to the Global Energy. And so the UAE is really interesting in that of course, hydrocarbons and renewables, but also in that, but on the hydrocarbon side, even, they're a leader in trying to clean up hydrocarbons. First of all, they're a low carbon producer, one of the lowest carbon producers of oil, so a barrel of oil from the UAE is going to lower life cycle emissions then from many other other sources. So they haven't

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
I didn't realize that. That's, that's fascinating.

Randy Bell
Yeah it's it. I think Saudi is the lowest in the world, but UAE is number two or number three.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And is that just for is that just better processing, ensuring there's no leaking of emissions, or what does that come down to technically?

Randy Bell
It's a combination of really good technology and commitment to this, the UAE has really not had any routine venting and flaring for a really long time. And that was a decision they made early on that that would be an important part of their energy system, and they capture the gas and use it for power. And so they're clean that way. But then there's also the oil itself that is relatively closer to the surface. So it's just a lot easier to extract. So you don't need to do a huge, huge amount of processing to get it out of the ground. So it's a good combination of geology and sort of a dedication to being clean. They also are a leader in carbon capture, they had the first first commercially viable carbon capture facility, it's used for EOR, but they have a steel plant that has a pure CO2 stream, it conveniently designed to have a pure CO2 stream that comes out so they just can capture directly off the plant. This is a process in which the CO2 is dehydrated a little bit, get it into the pipes and get it into the ground for you so that it captures a good amount of CO2. So there's a lot of interesting stuff going on. At our conference, as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the aim was to look at the geopolitics of energy transition. So how does the energy transition change global political relationships? Energy is not the only driver of geopolitical relationships, but surely is an important driver, particularly in the Middle East. And I think a good example of this is, you heard in, I can't remember in 2017, or 2018. But then Secretary Zinke said at CERAWeek, something to the effect of, you know, the US will no longer go fight wars for oil, we do not need to be in the Middle East anymore. And, and so there's obviously a strong, real concern for those folks sitting in the Gulf, that the US military presence, and which brings a bunch of stability, will leave because of the shale revolution, the US, you know, sort of won't get into whether this is true or not, but just their argumentation goes the US is energy independent, least any more that we can throw darts at that argument all day, but in general, there was at least a body of opinion, over the past four or five years, that with the US becoming a major oil and gas producer that it didn't need to protect the Middle East anymore. And so just those questions about what role a changing energy system would play in a gap in geopolitics. That was the real impetus for the conference from a big picture perspective. So we saw an opportunity in January to look at what the just sort of short term, what the year ahead would bring for energy. And because we were in Abu Dhabi, we could bring together not just oil and gas people, not just renewables people, but sort of everybody in one place.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Well, not this year. I guess, well, what's what's really fascinating as a participant actually, and kudos to your team who pulled this off, is that you know, no matter where you were, if you're a speaker or participant anywhere in the world you were able to participate in the conference. Essentially, I don't know if this is exactly true, but it seemed as if the conference was going on 24 hours a day, you know, at all hours a day. So if you were, I saw speakers who I knew, aren't they US based, but they were probably up at, you know, 1 am to give a presentation, and I think that was really very challenging, I'm sure, but also thoughtful, and very creative by your team to ensure that this really was something that was accessible given kind of the opportunity that a virtual conference presents, you really seem to take full advantage of it.

Randy Bell
Yeah, it was quite an experience. When we knew we had to do it virtually, we were trying to figure out how we would engage our global audiences. And we've been doing virtual events, we've been invited to speak at virtual events in Asia, and it'd be at two or three in the morning. And we would do it because we couldn't travel to Asia, we wanted to maintain those relationships, and we wanted to reach those audiences. And so the thinking was that these virtual events are more and more like television than, like a think tank event like a, you know, a four person panel. You know, ballroom, it's half empty because everybody's off getting coffee or whatnot. But it's much more like television and television runs 24 hours a day. So we could try to do something like that. And so instead of expecting our audience to wake up in, our audience in Asia to wake up at sort of crazy times, we would do it ourselves and try to design programming across various time zones. So we thought about some core audiences in Asia, core audiences in the Middle East, Europe, and in the United States. So over the course of what was three, three sort of straight days of programming, we had an additional fourth day with one, one special program. But in the days of programming, we had, I think it's something like 44, 45 hours of programming, over 56 hours of total time from start to stop. So there are a couple of breaks, but not many. And we weren't sure if it was going to work. But we did a program at four in the morning, Washington time, that was designed in partnership with Singapore International Energy week, and we had a huge audience in Asia watching. We invited Kevin Rudd to speak at a program on an event on a panel right after the inauguration, because this event happened to take place over the inauguration as well, which was interesting. And he said, you know I'm actually quarantining in Asia, he's usually in New York, because he said, he's like I'm quarantining in Australia. So that's the middle of the night for me. So I'd rather not. And we said, we didn't realize you're in Australia. Boy, do we have a program for you. Middle of the night, DC time. So he was able to, he gave a keynote. And we engaged him in his timezone and people in his timezone. So we really tried to bring, bring the forum to as many different audiences as we could.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
That's awesome. That's commendable. I definitely saw at some points, though you, you did seem a little tired. But that's totally understandable. I think you all did such a great job. But yeah, let's talk a little bit more about the actual agenda itself. And what were the major themes and topics that were discussed across all these audiences?

Randy Bell
Yeah, again, we try to look both in the short term. So what is the year ahead looks like, and then sort of a bigger picture. And so in the short term, we really wanted to look at what a post COVID energy system looks like, now, we're not post COVID yet, but we we can sort of see we hope, the light at the end of the tunnel, what has changed in the energy system because of COVID. And, and a lot of that is just the acceleration of trends that that, you know, we had seen, had seen coming for a while. And any number of organizations that moved up their projection of when peak oil demand will happen if they move that projection up in 2020. And so we saw just a general shift forward for sooner oil demand. And some projections say it's already happened. And some have moved, you know, the more, the people who say it's gonna happen much slower or wouldn't happen now are saying 2040, 2050. That's a big change. And so what does that mean for oil markets? What does that mean for the major producers? How do they think through diversifying in a much faster way than they maybe had had to previously, but they think through a world where, you know, oil demand is probably not going to get depending on who you are. But let's just say, you know, what the IEA will demand won't get back to 20 to 2020, a peak of a million, million-one barrels a day for a couple years now. So that you use spected, depress production, depress prices, and unless you can sort of balance out the balance of the market by producing even less the questions that OPEC+ is grappling with right now. They think through those issues. And I'd say that there was just one moment on the very first panel where we had Mohammed Barkindo, the head of OPEC and Minister Pradhan, the petroleum minister from from India, and they publicly disagreed about about what were surprise cuts to, from Saudi Arabia and from OPEC+, that sent the price of oil back up and well in India as a major importer had to think through sort of how does it manage in a time where it's still trying to recover from COVID? How does it deal with oil prices that are roughly the same as a pre-COVID level, simply because there is so much less production? So there's this public disagreement, it's still in the press, I got The Times of India I was sent a Times of India clipping over the weekend about it. So you know, those are the types of questions that we wanted to answer. And in the short term, what post COVID, or emerging from COVID energy looks like. We also wanted to talk about what the emerging Joe Biden administration's energy policies would be? Any number of international and domestic frankly people really want to know what that looks like. And so it happened over again, it happened over the inauguration, you can't really get people who are going into the administration, because they're not allowed to speak or they're not in or whatnot. But we were able to bring a number of folks in to talk about to talk about what a Biden climate and energy policy could look like, both from a domestic perspective, but also what does that mean for foreign policy, and we had a great panel on the Biden Administration's energy and foreign policy in the Middle East. And we had representatives from UAE, and from Israel, and from the US on that panel. And it's really interesting that we can now have UAE and Israel, because of the Abraham Accords, and that's going to be a real determinant are really determinative of what foreign policy and energy policy looks like in the Middle East. We do the same with Asia and with Europe. And so we're able to have a number of really good conversations about how those relationships work, how those international energy relationships work.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, I'm curious, and maybe you could talk about some of the panelists perspectives that that you heard on how climate change really kind of factors into these discussions, and whether it's us leadership or not, and how other leaders are thinking about climate in their, in their energy, you know, decision making or or even just outlooks?

Randy Bell
Yeah climate has taken on, it took on in 2020, and over the course of COVID, a much greater chunk of the conversation much bigger, you know, people talk about climate much more than they did I think before COVID. One, one would could have projected that sort of at the very beginning of COVID, that climate would be put on the backburner yet, again, that we've got this immediate crisis that that COVID needed to be dealt with, we needed to get the global economy back on track, climate would not be part of that conversation. And instead, the exact opposite has happened. And I think we need to give a lot of credit to the Europeans for driving this. Europeans and others, but Europeans in particular, saw COVID as an opportunity to double down on climate to actually bring coalition's together to say, we're going to have to spend to get out of the COVID induced economic slump. There's no question about that. We've wanted to spend on green energy, on a range of climate related investments for years. We know how the opportunity to spend a lot of money, we have the back the sort of raison d'etre for doing that.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And the impetus

Randy Bell
And now we should actually, we know what to spend it on, which is green investment. Europeans just said, we are doing this and every, and they continue to follow through. And this has been going on for months and months and months, and conversations that we were convening with European leaders in the early part of 2020 on sort of what they're going to do about clean energy, what they're going to do about carbon border adjustment, all these sorts of, about hydrogen, all these sorts of policies, they've just accelerated. And I think that everybody saw this as the moment where either we're going to act on climate, or it really was we're just going to live with the consequences of not acting. And for the most part, people are acting. And we saw that just across the board at the forum that there was real interest from any number of stakeholders in acting and then you see that in the United States where climate became a key issue of the presidential election in a way that it never really was a top tier issue before. Biden had to navigate a very complicated landscape. Because there are sort of landmines on the left and on the right, and he managed to thread that needle. You know, really well not gonna ban fracking, but gonna make lots of clean energy investments, you signaled all the right people and all and very real serious engagement on climate through these early appointees. So the US with the election is also following through. And that conversation, the sort of demand for the climate conversation and how we think through climate net zero pledges, all that became a huge part of the conversation. And, and I have to see it as really following through 2021. And beyond at this point, just the amount of money behind it, the amount of policy commitment behind it.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
That's fair, well, let's dive a little deeper into kind of domestic politics. And in a second, unless there's anything, I do want to ask, Is there anything at the forum that kind of took you off guard or surprised you during the conversations? I know, you mentioned some disagreements, but, um, you know, kind of given that you were able to reach a larger audience, was there anything that kind of you weren't anticipating that came up?

Randy Bell
So I wasn't anticipating as much agreement on the need to act on climate. One thing that I thought was really it's not surprising, because we're seeing this across the board. But it I think it was more pronounced than I was expecting was the disagreement about the role of gas in the energy system. And that came up in a number of panels. And sort of what and and, you know, is gas a destination? Is it a bridge fuel? Does it enable other clean energy technologies, and that that disagreement about the future of gas I think, was more pronounced than I was expecting. And I think that that's just a really interesting place to, to watch over the next couple of years? Because it sort of depends on where you sit what you think about it. On that, you know, it is a hydrocarbon, it does admit much cleaner than coal. How do you get countries that have deep investment in coal off of coal? Gas is a great option. Can gas infrastructure, is gas infrastructure a stranded asset? Or can it be made hydrogen ready, so that as the hydrogen economy grows, you can just transition that infrastructure to gas and so make early wins by getting people off getting rid of coal now putting gas in while being sort of prepared for, you know, a zero carbon fuel in the future? Those are the types of questions that there's a lot of divergence of opinion. And I think that we're going to be where we want to talk about domestic I think that's going to be one of the biggest domestic policy challenges and political challenges that President Biden and his administration are going to face is how to navigate the role of natural gas?

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Well, I mean, it really is political, geopolitical, but but very much specifically here in the United States, which has recently kind of become a major leader in natural gas, you know, exploration and, and production, and as well as now exports. And so the future whether because the policy decision is will this be, you know, the bridge fuel that it's been talked about? Or will it be, you know, and therefore require an investment in infrastructure? That will either be transitioned, as you said, maybe to another type of economy, like a hydrogen economy, or will it stay around? And will that infrastructure not or will it not be invested in the first place, and we really are kind of at a political crossroads there. It's something that, you know, there could be, there could be leadership here, or it could be something that's led by industry and markets. So it's definitely a really interesting area to watch. And, you know, kind of switching to domestic politics, you know, the Atlantic Council and Global Energy Center are really in a unique kind of position here in Washington, DC, because because you serve as this non partisan, you know, space that promotes us leadership, and us engagement on global issues. And really just kind of acts as a place, you know, a think tank really, really what you think of as a thing that you bring together experts who have studied these issues, who have lifelong career sometimes and have expertise on particular issues and really understand the trade offs, the benefits, the costs, and then they present those those findings, their expertise through many different forum and programs and reports from the Atlantic Council. But then it really is up to just to decision makers and politicians and to various actors in the energy space to kind of take on that leadership role. So I understand I'm kind of caveat and you know that the Atlantic Council isn't out there telling, you know, the administration what to do, but you really are providing a lot of great resources for those who are thinking through these very tough decisions. And so, with that backdrop, I am curious if we could talk a little bit more about what your personal or the Atlantic Council's kind of perspectives are on what the Biden administration should be prioritizing on the climate and energy agenda in the next year.


Randy Bell
Yeah, well, let me caveat this by saying the Atlantic Council, because it's nonpartisan, because we bring so many different people with different perspectives together, the organization does not have a particular perspective on any one policy issue. So the organization will not go out and sign a letter endorsing, you know, a carbon tax or endorsing LNG exports, or anything like that. So each person at the Atlantic Council has their own own opinions, etc. So that's sort of how we think about it. But, you know, in terms of what the administration is working on, and what their priorities are, and obviously, the US needs to regain credibility on climate internationally. The, it's clear, the US cannot, even if the US were to act on climate on its own, that that's just not good enough. We need to galvanize global action on climate, on emissions reduction, on adapting our systems for a world that will be inevitably getting and will be inevitably a bit hotter. And so, how does the US do that? You know, first of all, it has to has to regain leadership do stuff at home, it's got it got to take on climate at home, and how we were just talking about gas is going to be the heart one of the hardest things that the Biden ministration faces, but there is there's a, there's a win there, which is to focus on methane. Now the industry is divided. And the Trump administration essentially sided with the smaller producers, the less the producers who are less globally exposed to, to rolling back methane regulations. And this is an area where you have, you know, a pretty strong contingent of the industry who thinks you really need to really need to have some methane regulations, that we really need to be a leader on on methane that the the social licence to operate internationally to sell gas internationally to think of American products is ultimately clean, if they're produced from our power system, and that we're going to need methane regulations. And so you can get at least enough of a coalition of industry, and an act and sort of the environmental community behind this. And there's been great work done by any number of companies and organizations on this area where I think you're going to see sort of bipartisan or enough bipartisan agreement, enough industry support that that that allows you to work on the question the tough questions about natural gas, without, without sort of enraging the politics, which is going to be a real challenge. And again, it's always worth noting that, you know, Joe Manchin is the crucial swing vote on this in the Senate. So it's Joe Manchin's climate policy. Now, the methane you can do through the EPA. And they will do that through a regulatory mechanism. And so they do that it can always be undone by the, you know, if there's a Republican administration, so put that, you know, that's a priority, but then the power system transportation, you know, the Biden has laid out a great plan. And so realizing what that plan is at realizing that plan is going to be the challenge. How much can you get done just from just the executive branch? What can we get done through legislation? There was more, I was surprised at how much got done in the energy bill passed at the end of the year, which is well but there's more to do. So where are those bipartisan winds that come from the House and the Senate? That's, you know, there's a really good question there. And we've all talked about nuclear there continues to be bipartisan opportunities for nuclear there.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Carbon capture as well.

Randy Bell
Exactly. Yep. Carbon capture, and then they're always there's always opportunity for research. You know, research and development. The Congress has always supported ARPA-E, even as parts of the Trump administration tried to try to have that cut, the budget reduced. So there are some opportunities for bipartisan work. And they're actually going back to the Global Energy Forum, we hosted a panel on the very last day about bipartisan opportunities in the United States. And there are a good number of them. And there is growing support in the Republican Party for climate action. And it's a challenge the Republican Party has a wide range of opinions on how the US should act on climate or or if they should, at all, but it is evolving. I think it is important to note, and the Atlantic Council is a nonpartisan organization, is happy to work with anybody that, you know, wants to think through what sitting you know, where X Representative sits, what can that X Representative accomplish, given his or her political, political restrictions back home? So how we think about it is trying to help people figure out, you know, where they are.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
The local benefits too. So you did mention, though, that while it's important for the United States to have strong domestic policies, really what that's helping the Biden Administration to achieve is regaining leadership in climate. Right. So we're back in the Paris Accord. That's a quick win. But I'm curious for your thoughts on what we should expect in terms of what that actually might mean. You know, have you heard any talk about, you know, are we looking towards any major commitments? You know, committing to net zero like they have in Europe? You know, would these be tied to funding? Would that require Congress's input? What are some of your perspectives on, you know, these broader higher level policy commitments and goals around climate and what we could expect to see?

Randy Bell
Yeah, I mean, so the administration is still getting its people in place. And that's important, you know, you have a couple of the very top people in place, and then you have a number of folks who do not need confirmation, who have been named, not all of them are in their jobs. You know, we hear rumors, we have people telling us this, this is going to happen, and that's going to happen. But it's you know, and that's growing every day, but it's still a ways off, I would say that what's really important is that you're seeing across a range of agencies, people who are going into work on climate. And so I think that one that really sold it for me was how serious they are thinking across the government was that they named, especially a senior advisor for climate to the Secretary of Defense, you see that, you know, the Secretary, the Defense Department is the largest fuel purchaser, I think, at least in the United States, possibly in the world. And it has, you know, installations everywhere, has huge energy needs, they can bend markets, just with their purchasing power. And, and in the Obama Administration, there were some efforts to have climate as part of the thinking about the US defense posture. And that got started into that. And there was the great green fleet through the Navy, sort of thinking about biofuels and how to lower the, you know, emissions profile of the Navy ships and planes. And they made some good progress there, which actually has helped advance the aviation biofuel market. And, and you started to see that in the commercial airline business as well. But elevating it to, it's sort of top three priorities. So there's three special advisers, there is a special advisor, senior, you're gonna have to correct me if it's special, or senior, I can't remember. But climate, COVID, and China, those are the three that they're saying, we have three big priorities and we need to have somebody dedicated to working on that. And the climate is one of them. That's a big, huge and so you're seeing that level of investment and thought about climate across a range of agencies. So you're gonna see a huge amount of work coming out of John Kerry. You see there, you know, he's gonna have, he's already you know, making phone calls. He's the former Secretary of State, the diplomat's diplomat, he can get things done. But you're gonna see this across the board, from the administration and I have to say that's at least as important as naming John Kerry as the international climate envoy. You can just, but just by thinking through what you know, what, how does DOD procure procure electricity, if you just send a market signal that we only want to procure, you know, we don't want to procure renewables, or you know, zero carbon power, or whoever, however they think about it, you really have some market power there. So, I think that across the board, that kind of thinking is where we're gonna see so much action by shaping markets through the just the enormity of the US government.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Those signals and of course, so you mentioned John Kerry. Also, Gina McCarthy, kind of on the domestic front, kind of leading those agencies looking at their own carbon footprints and opportunities for making real strides in climate policy. And then, of course, John Kerry, kind of carrying that flag around the world, in our foreign policy and really being that example for other nations, and then helping to kind of bring that thinking global. Yeah, so I guess kind of, we've talked a lot about how, you know, your work in the Atlantic Council's kind of focus here is on the global geopolitical issues around energy around policy here in the United States, but also a big area that you guys focus on and help to support thought leadership is the future. You're looking at future energy innovation, I know you have, you know, blogs and podcasts, forums and reports that you write, you know, around the end, called the energy source innovation stream, which I actually was interviewed by you on a few months ago. And really, what you do with those platforms is kind of highlight these coming and emerging trends or technologies that will be important to political issues, or to policy issues in the near future, you're talking about hydrogen, talking about carbon capture, talking about the future of nuclear energy, for example. Could you tell us a little bit more about, you know, the innovations that you're excited about? What have you been learning, by engaging with all these experts? And what makes you excited about the future of energy innovation in general?

Randy Bell
Yeah, I mean, there's so many cool technologies that people are developing, whether you're talking about advanced nuclear, which is something you obviously care a whole lot about, or hydrogen, or technologies that make oil and gas extraction cleaner and cheaper. And the range of inventiveness we're seeing right now, I think it's probably unparalleled. People recognize that there's a crisis, there's money going into finding ways of addressing this crisis. And it's not going to be solved by a silver bullet, it's going to be solved by a whole range of different technologies and tools that help address the issues in various sectors. There are a couple things that obviously can, you know, solve a lot of the problem we're really good at. And ultimately on the power sector, drawing down the emissions profile, the power sector, at least part of the way, coal to gas switching gas paired with renewables, getting the existing nuclear fleet capacity factor up. I mean, the capacity factor in the existing nuclear fleet is in the 90s, 90%. Right now, I mean, that's remarkable. And we're global leaders in that. And that just means more clean power for the US. So all those types of innovations, we're pretty good at, you know, getting beyond, you know, the sort of getting to a, you know, full decarbonisation of the power sector is harder. And so what are the technologies that we need for that is that, you know, a combination of seasonal storage, you know, short term battery storage, and hydrogen and, you know, the sort of, its geographic where technologies are going to work in different places, how does that integrate with transportation, their transportation sector? There's a lot of open questions for that. So there's a lot of really smart people who are really thinking of cool ideas and I as a non technological person. I love being able to talk to people who are working on this stuff, because I just learned a ton, and it's sort of like this wow factor all the time. Do I think that all of them are going to work out? Probably not. Do I think that all of them could work but they might be too expensive? There's probably a group that would work, but they're just not economical and probably won't be part of the solution, unless you're in a really nice situation. And so, but I think it's important to get people thinking about what a clean energy system looks like, that is beyond sort of the you know, what people's baseline thinking is, you know renewables plus maybe better batteries, because that only gets you so far. And so we really need to think about how we solve the industrial sector? Right? Renewable power just can't cut it, you can't generate the heat that you need. How do you solve it? You know, seasonal storage issues in the power sector? How do you know about aviation? There's just so many cool things that you can do with aviation, that even aren't fuel oriented. I'm thinking more efficiently about, you know, the flight routes, flight patterns, that that's a way of making aviation more energy efficient?

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Well, yeah, that brings up a really good good point that I've noticed as well. And a lot of the work that the Global Energy Center is highlighting it's not just innovation on, you know, the next generation of battery storage technology, for example, it's innovation beyond the tech itself,, it's what are the new business models, or the new financing models? What are the new ways to market or think about, you know, kind of these technologies and the energy transition in general, kind of as a whole, and policies, local policies, for example, even. So, it's really, you know, there's this whole kind of ecosystem of innovators and entrepreneurs and folks who are working together, many of them, you know, will succeed, many of them will not succeed. But what's inspiring and what's really exciting, I think, that you guys have a front seat to really seeing kind of all of this amazing effort and attention that the private sector, the public sector, you know, not just technology sectors even are bringing to this space, and how much potential there really is for making the energy transition, you know, realizable?

Randy Bell
That's exactly right. I see our job with this program as twofold. One to to get people to think about your sort of broader about the types of innovations and the types of technologies, they're going to be needed to solve these problems. And then, so there's sort of more a general audience, and then to make sure that folks who are thinking, you know, are more sort of experts who are thinking about this think about, you know, what that next possibility is, particularly to the investor community. I love that we have done a little bit of matchmaking that's happened behind the scenes. And that's always really rewarding to see a new technology where an investor says- now we don't pick winners at the Atlantic Council, we're not investors, if I were an investor there may be some that I would pick. But it's great to see people who actually have expertise in this can say, okay, I want that one. And I want to talk to them and look at their deck and see, you know, what they need. So that's, you know, that's sort of the second piece of it, for us is really getting some of those from the sort of prototype or early stage to a mass market. So it's really exciting to be part of that front row seat.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Exactly. Well, I guess as we kind of wrap up here, I know, you said there's no silver bullet, you know, and I'm not expecting to produce one. But if you had a magic wand, per se, and you were kind of looking at the energy transition, and all of this exciting innovation that you're seeing around you, where would you wave that wand? What are you actually really excited to see, you know, more focused or more attention on in the next few years?

Randy Bell
Now, this is a magic wand.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
A magic wand, you can use it however you want.

Randy Bell
How realistic could this be? Should this be? Because I have an answer that I think is totally unrealistic, but is mostly unrealistic, but probably the most helpful and answers that are probably more realistic. So which would you prefer?

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Let's go with the one that's more exciting.

Randy Bell
Let's see, it's not even that exciting. I just I mean, as sitting, looking at this range of technologies, looking at this sort of set of problems that we have, for it to, you know, for the energy system, I think a price on carbon is just that, without that you don't send the market signals, you end up having to sort of do these sort of sectoral approaches, you know, 45 Q and A q 45. q here, saving a nuclear plant here, and, and it's just not efficient. And what you really want is to get rid of your price, the problem, which is carbon, you want to get rid of the carbon, and you kind of don't care how the solution works, because it's going to work differently in different environments. But it's not exciting, because it's been around for a while. And it's just the politics of it, you know we can dream but, you know, okay, so if there's something you would have, if we have to think sectorally, which is sort of how we do it, we have to think serving these narrow ways of approaching it. I'm most excited about hydrogen, because it's in a position where, you know, if all the cards fall right you're going to see the costs come down of electrolyzers like they've come down for solar. It's going to see these dramatic drops in price. And so you're gonna see the ability for two produce large quantities of zero or low carbon hydrogen very quickly. It also ties into the existing hydrocarbon infrastructure, which I think will make a lot of people politically more comfortable, because you just, it doesn't get rid of the stranded asset problem, but it makes the stranded asset problem a little more more manageable. Infrastructure, if it is not already hydrogen ready can be made. So with sort of limited investment, you can actually do use, you know, hydrogen now produced the so called gray hydrogen is produced with natural gas and steam methane reforming, without capturing the CO2. If you were to use just this hydrogen, which is sort of dirty hydrogen, if you were to switch out that for diesel vehicles, for in heavy trucking, you'd have an immediate drop in GHG, emissions and air quality, even with the sort of dirty process that's cheap, right? Relatively cheap right now. The pathways you see are immediate opportunity with existing technology and a whole bunch of opportunity down the line. So you can build now with existing technology, and then drop in the price will drop, and it'll get cleaner as you continue to push on it. So I just see, I see this as a really important piece of the puzzle that we've sort of struggled with so far. And I see the opportunity, you know, being really ripe at this moment.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
I think that's a fantastic perspective, it actually aligns very much with what we focus on at the Energy Impact Center, right, let's look at the set of solutions that we have at our disposal right now. They might not be perfect, but we need to start implementing them now. So that we can make those efficiency gains as innovation gains and the future we can make a you know that that more perfect system and actually make a dent in climate change. Well, thank you so much, Randy. This has been a really wonderful conversation. I'm, I learned a lot myself even though I feel like I know quite a lot about the Atlantic Council's work. But I really enjoyed our conversation. And thank you so much for being on the show.

Randy Bell
Thank you so much, really appreciate the invitation. And it's such a pleasure to work with you and the Energy Impact Center. So we really look forward to continuing our partnership.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Excellent. All right. Thank you.

Randy Bell
Thank you.

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